In the space of two or three decades, Korngold’s greatest operatic success, Die Tote Stadt, has gone from being a rarity in the theatre to a virtual repertoire work. This season in Germany alone it can be seen in four different productions, and the first to reach the stage is a revival of Anselm Weber’s 2009 version for Oper Frankfurt.

Sara Jakubiak (image of the Maries), David Pomeroy (Paul) © Barbara Aumüller
Sara Jakubiak (image of the Maries), David Pomeroy (Paul)
© Barbara Aumüller
With one or two caveats and despite some issues with the staging, it's a musical triumph. Sebastian Weigle draws some exceptionally full-blooded and seductive sounds from the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra, even if his tempi are occasionally a little indulgent – a particularly drawn-out ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’, for instance. The leading role of Paul, the widower who cannot free himself from the hold of his late wife Maria, is a tough one and in many respects cries out for the oomph and ring of a Heldentenor. Canadian David Pomeroy copes consummately with the generally high tessitura of the part and his tonal range is broad, but there were times in this mid-run performance when a little more power would have helped. As Marietta, US soprano Sara Jakubiak, too, had initial problems breaking through Korngold’s lush orchestral backing, but she soon recalibrated her projection to give a performance that was both tonally firm and communicative, combining the right sort of coquettishness with the allure that tricks Paul into believing she is Maria resurrected. Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper, is sympathetically portrayed by Maria Pantiukhova, but the show is stolen vocally by the beautifully poised and charismatic singing of Björn Bürger as both Paul’s friend Frank and Fritz, the Pierrot, whose famous ‘Mein Sehnen, mein wähnen’ in Act 2 is a high point of the evening. The rest of Marietta’s theatrical troupe – Anna Ryberg (Juliette), Jenny Carlstedt (Lucienne), Michael Porter (Victorin) and Hans-Jürgen Lazar (Graf Albert) – join him in making up a terrific ensemble for their circus-like invasion of the scene in the same act.

Björn Bürger (Fritz) und Sara Jakubiak (Marietta) © Barbara Aumüller
Björn Bürger (Fritz) und Sara Jakubiak (Marietta)
© Barbara Aumüller
Their appearance, indeed, seemed more than usual an entertaining diversion from the main drama in Weber’s vision of the piece, despite the scene being set up by a dancing vision of a drag Maria (portrayed by the lithe Alan Barnes) taunting Paul, and it summed up the issues with the staging. With a plot that veers between realism and imagination, the opera offers plenty of scope for directors, who must choose how far to signal this duality. Of the various productions I’ve seen over the decades, Willy Decker’s much-travelled version has come closest to delineating the different levels. Weber’s approach is more diffuse and, as overheard conversation during the interval suggested, does not necessarily help the first-timer to the work understand what’s going on.

In Katja Haß’s sets, Paul is given a big ‘concrete’ cube as his shrine to Maria, set up as a multi-screen video installation to her memory, a ‘church of the past’. Doors in the huge back walls open up at times to reveal everything from nuns to naked women – windows into Paul’s mind, perhaps. Shaven-headed and dressed in sack-cloth – looking more like Wozzeck than anything – he is seen more as a witness of events than as a participant, symbolised by his obsession with videoing everything. Even at the cathartic point in Act 3 when he supposedly murders Marietta with Maria’s hair, he merely watches as 11 aged Maria-lookalikes – each dressed in her trademark red dress – do the deed behind the closed walls of the shrine.

Jenny Carlstedt, Anna Ryberg, Björn Bürger, Hans-Jürgen Lazar, Michael Porter © Barbara Aumüller
Jenny Carlstedt, Anna Ryberg, Björn Bürger, Hans-Jürgen Lazar, Michael Porter
© Barbara Aumüller
The point at which the ‘it was all dream’ narrative becomes clear, and Paul is freed from his past, is thus blurred, though there’s an intriguing and perceptive suggestion in Marietta’s final greeting of Frank that she has been deliberately employed by Paul’s friend to rescue the widower from his life-sapping obsession. Elsewhere, Weber’s avowed intent to expose the stifling Catholicism of Bruges – the ‘dead city’ of the title – seems underplayed in effect, with the religious procession in Act 3, which should invade the stage and by implication Paul’s imagination, seen as yet another second-hand video image. Overall, then, this is a production that presents more questions that it appears to answer.